Creating Equitable Ecosystems of Belonging and Opportunity for Youth An Action Guide for Cross-System and Sector Leaders and Practitioners

Ecosystem for Youth Belonging and Opportunity

The concept of a youth development ecosystem, builds from and expands upon Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, which views child development within the context of the system of relationships that form their environment. Broffenbrenner, who helped establish the federal Head Start program, defines complex layers of environment, including family and community environments and larger societal contexts, each having an effect on a child’s development. In the Forum’s framing of a youth development ecosystem, we emphasize that an ecosystem has no center—it is made up of the complex and dynamic set of relationships within and across systems. This shift in perspective, decentering individual learners, emphasizes the role that developmental relationships play within and across systems, as well as the systemic solutions that are needed to support a healthy youth development ecosystem.

Many scholars, including Bronfenbrenner, have identified a major challenge for child development—the deficit-based approach that public systems often utilize in provision of services and administration of benefits to struggling parents and families. While many public systems are moving upstream, providing services and supports to families before a point of crisis, a reimagined ecosystem calls for systems leaders to not only apply a strength-based approach, but to also create an enabling environment for positive relationships with adults—whether they are teachers, coaches, youth workers, social workers, or therapists. Action for systems change and improvement is included in the Youth Journey Map for Belonging and Opportunity section of this guide.

Belonging Defined

Safety and belonging are the foundation of the Forum’s Youth Program Quality Pyramid and are essential in producing positive youth outcomes. Belonging is a critical component of a setting that supports the development of youth. From a youth perspective, belonging is the epitome of feeling like one’s true self within a setting or community. This includes feeling secure, valued, affirmed, connected, and in alignment with others. Belonging does not require a need to adapt or change to fit in, nor does it include a fear of judgment or repercussions. Oftentimes, entering a new setting (like school, work, or a provider’s office) can prompt a sense of vulnerability. When belonging is present, those feelings are quickly replaced with feelings of reassurance, safety, and understanding.

Relationships that promote belonging are not transactional— they are transformative. Opportunities to experience belonging should be equitable—meaning that all youth regardless of their identity or circumstances should be able to experience a sense of belonging that supports their development within and across the systems and settings where they spend their time. Advancing equity is key to building systems where all youth feel valued, respected, and supported.


Comments are closed.